The Rev. Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain
October 3, 2021
May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis, and when Cameron and I were planning this day Elaina LeGault brought up a wondering – which was whether we might include St. Clare in this day’s liturgy. I’m so glad that Elaina suggested this because I didn’t know all that much about St. Clare and the suggestion caused me to learn more.
St. Clare and St. Francis were contemporaries, I found out. They both were born into wealthy families in Assisi in Italy in the late 11th century, and they both felt called into something different than a rich and easy lifestyle. I was much more familiar with the story of Francis – you might be also - he was a young playboy of sorts, living it up in the early years of his life. One account I read said that “His early youth was spent in harmless revelry and fruitless attempts to win military glory.” Then, despite his family’s public disapproval and against all odds and norms of his time, Francis realized that he needed to embrace a life of poverty, in service to the poor and the sick, including lepers. And he did it! He has often been known as the most popular and admired saint, and also probably the least imitated. He is often associated with care for creation, and for a connection with animals in particular.
Clare, also born into wealth as I mentioned, was inspired by Francis and made a move that could only have been seen as scandalous and unheard of in her era – she fled her family and joined Francis and his friars, eventually founding a religious order of women called first “The Poor Ladies” and eventually The Order of St. Clare. She had to have been an extremely influential person – she convinced many female followers to join her. Her order embraced the Franciscan rule of absolute poverty, and she led her order in a life of begging for alms for the poor and caring for those in need. Clare wrote a prayer that summed up her mission in life. A part of it says - “Father of Mercies, may we strive to always imitate the way of holy simplicity, humility and poverty, shown us by our father Francis... May we love one another with the charity of Christ.” Learning about Clare made we wish that we heard about her more often.
It’s always been a little curious to me that Francis has become so identified with animals. Don’t get me wrong, I love animal blessings and I think all of you know how much I look forward to doing blessings in the dog park. Especially this year after so many months of not being about to be there. But Francis’ focus was actually broader – it encompassed all of creation. He didn’t leave a lot of writings behind, but one of his most famous is the Canticle of the Sun which he wrote at St. Clare’s San Damiano monastery when Clare hosted him there. The Canticle is quite long, so I’ll paraphrase. It notes things like “Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures.” It talks about the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the Wind, Air, Fire, Earth --- and it personifies them as siblings, beloved siblings with whom we are connected. Francis described creation as beautiful, radiant, precious, useful, humble, pure, cheerful, powerful, strong. The canticle even praises sibling Death, noting that death is the “embrace no living person can escape.”
My guess is that one of the reasons Francis’ message has been interpreted to be speaking about creatures who are animals is that the notion of creation as a whole is a little hard to get our heads around. Somewhat abstract. Overwhelming. And then when it comes to thinking about how each of us human beings are a part of God’s creation – that’s kind of hard to fathom also. Does this mean that the person I don’t understand or who is my enemy or who is “other” to me is a part of God’s inclusive creation too? What am I to think about that? Maybe it feels simpler to think about a sub-set of all of this – animals who often are so representative of unconditional love and who also conveniently don’t talk back!
Years ago, when my older son was in high school, we traveled each February with our church to do Habitat for Humanity work in rural Mississippi. We spent a week working side by side with members of a poor Black community who would be moving into the homes that we helped to build together. It was a formative experience. I think I traveled to Mississippi 11 times –often with my son and his friends.
On many of those trips, we experienced a dilemma related to the animals we encountered along the way. A dilemma about dogs in particular, although one year there was a memorable cat. The high schoolers, my son included, noticed and felt disturbed about the dogs in the poor community in which we lived and worked. Adults on the trip worried about them too. These were dogs that broke our collective hearts – thin, flea-ridden, not that healthy – and they of course spotted us and worked mightily to become our friends.
And so we had to process this – the condition of the dogs was a reflection of the poverty of the community, that was clear. We wondered what to do about the dogs. Should we feed them? Ignore them? Talk with the community about them? Take them to the vet? We didn’t agree. It was messy and complicated and fraught, as being in community often is. It was not lost on any of us that we needed also to be worrying about the people who were living in such poverty. If we felt that we wanted to help the dogs, surely we should do something to help the people too, right? But how? What could we do?
We talked about the dilemma each time it occurred, and I’m not sure we ever got it quite right. We talked about racism and social justice and poverty. We worked side by side with our Black siblings who were so different than us. We learned their perspectives about the dogs and we heard about the poverty and scarcity they faced. And still those dogs tugged at our hearts.
Now, I also noticed something about the years in which we didn’t see the dogs --- there were some years that they just weren’t around. In those years, our conversations somehow seemed a little less rich. We didn’t struggle with the nuance and sadness and poverty around us as much. Maybe it was easier, but it certainly wasn’t as deep. It was as if, when they were around us, the dogs represented a lense or “way in” to help us feel. Their immediacy forced us to really think about the sadness around us. They brought out our empathy, creatures of unconditional love that they were. They also caused us to ask ourselves questions about how to make sense of the poverty we were seeing. They made it real.
It was only in preparing this homily that I began to wonder what St. Francis and St. Clare would have to say about all of this. And here’s what I have come to believe. I think that Francis would have advised us, in Mississippi, doing Habitat work, that our fellow creatures --- of all kinds – animal and human – are siblings in this world and they reflect to us the face of Christ. They remind us of God’s love for all of us, particularly those of us in need. They are all parts of creation that reflect the glory of God, to use St. Clare’s words. And that – if we can only remember to see one another as creatures together on this earth – then we can see indeed Christ in all of us. We need to look for this in one another, and pray about it, and live into how we are related and interconnected. We need to lift up our eyes to the help of God, as our psalm so poetically put it. I think Clare might have pushed us to go even a little deeper – to think about the tragedy of systemic poverty and structural racism. I think she would have conveyed to us that it’s just not ok to throw up our hands and feel too overwhelmed to do anything. I think Clare would have said, in fact, that we all can do something.
Which brings me to our gospel text. The gospel reading today, for St. Francis day, closes with the iconic and familiar words “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I think this Gospel reading is reminding us that our decision to be Christians in this complicated world – it’s not easy. It will weary us from time to time. Maybe often. But caring for one another and easing one another’s burdens is the thing we are meant to do. Counterintuitive as it seems, it will bring us rest. And why is that? Because in loving others we see the face of God in the world. We feel God’s strength supporting us. As I preached a few weeks ago, it’s like taking up a cross that might be heavy but that also brings us liberation and joy. And as Cameron preached about last week, it’s transformational. Being transformed means always being in the process of listening, praying and feeling. Of being challenged, just as we were challenged by loving the dogs in Mississippi. By noticing. By keeping watch. So that, as the reading from St. Clare puts it – we can transform our beings into the image that we reflect, which is the image of God.
And so – today we bless our animal companions in honor of St. Francis – and I would add in honor of St. Clare too. In blessing the animals we love, we express our love for each other and for creation. People sometimes ask me why we go to the dog park to bless the companions of people who will probably never join us at church, and I always say that we bless our neighbor’s beloved animals to show our care for both the animals and the humans around us. To show our love for our neighbors in our world. In this way, our blessings are as broad as Francis’ vision of creation, really.
As we think about what we’re doing as we bless our animal companions, and by extension, one another, I’d like us to remember this short prayer from the author Joyce Rupp. She wrote,
‘To bless is to bring the touch of God, the touch of love and goodness, to another by our presence, as well as by our actions.
Blessings are a greeting from God, saying:
I care about you. I desire what will be for your good.
I want your life to be filled with love.”
May it be so. Amen.